JERUSALEM — After the recent deadly spate of suicide attacks, citizens of Jerusalem fear for their lives. But Christians and Jews in the area say they also fear attacks on their holy places.
Christians in the Holy Land and elsewhere are becoming increasingly concerned by reports that Muslim officials in Jerusalem are destroying parts of the Temple Mount in an attempt to eradicate Christian and Jewish claims to the site.
The site of the ancient First and Second Jewish Temples and the Al-Aksa Mosque, the Temple Mount is also central to Christian history and theology. Luke 2:22–28 records that Jesus was dedicated in the Second Temple in accordance with the Laws of Moses, and note his boyhood visit to the Temple, where he spoke to teachers (Luke 2:41–52). At the beginning of his three-year ministry at the age of 30, Jesus cleansed the Temple (John 2:14) at Passover, and again during the last week of his life (Matthew 21:12, Mark 11:15–19, Luke 19:45–48).
According to leading archaeologists, the Islamic Wakf — the Muslim agency that has sole control over everything but security at the Temple Mount — has been systematically destroying parts of its ancient infrastructure in the process of building a new mosque and performing maintenance work around the site of the old one.
Dr. Gabriel Barkai, an archaeologist at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, believes that the Wakf has been digging at the Temple Mount not only for religious but political reasons.
Barkai, a member of the Committee to Prevent the Destruction of Temple Mount Antiquities, says that “by eradicating physical evidence of Jewish and Christian worship and habitation at the site, Muslim officials hope to strengthen the Palestinians' bid to have East Jerusalem designated the capital of a Palestinian state.”
The Palestinian Authority has long insisted that East Jerusalem, which Israel captured during the 1967 Middle East War, must be the capital of any eventual Palestinian state. Israel, which considers both East and West Jerusalem part of its capital, is vehemently resisting this initiative.
The worst destruction by the Wakf, experts say, occurred in the late 1990s and the year 2000, when the Muslims built a new mosque in an area known as Solomon's Stables. After Wakf officials requested and received from Israeli officials a permit to open an emergency exit in the new mosque, for reasons of safety, the Muslim authority tried to break through four of the underground arches in the northern part of Solomon's Stables.
According to an eye-witness account in the Israeli newspaper Ha‘aretz, the Wakf dug a “200 ft by 80 ft. hole at the site. A fleet of dozens of bulldozers and trucks was put to work and 6,000 tons of earth were dug up and removed. Some of it was scattered at dumpsites. Antiquities dating back to a number of periods, including the First and Second Temple eras, were tossed on garbage heaps. The Antiquities Authority managed to salvage but a small part of all these treasures.”
It is impossible to know whether any desecration is taking place right now, and to what extent, because the Wakf has not permitted any visits to the site by non-Muslims since the start of the Palestinian uprising in October 2000. Ariel Sharon, now Israel's prime minister, toured the Temple Mount just before the start of the uprising, a move Muslims called provocative and which became the flashpoint that triggered the violence.
When Israel wrested control of East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, it permitted the Wakf to retain its civil and religious authority over the Temple Mount compound. The decision, which some government officials now regret, was meant to prevent international outrage over the Jewish takeover of a Muslim holy place. However, the government also gave Jews access to the Western Wall, access long denied to them under Jordanian rule.
While flatly denying that Muslims are destroying antiquities, Abdel Husseini, director of the Wakf, told the Register that “it is God's will that this place is a mosque, and this declaration of God is more important than the declaration of Jews or Christians. God's declaration says this is an Islamic place called Al-Aksa mosque. What others like to claim from here and there, we have nothing to do with.”
Some Muslim clerics have gone so far as to proclaim that neither Jews nor Christians have any religious or historical claim to the Temple Mount, and that Jesus was not a Jew but a Palestinian.
Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, the Palestinian-appointed mufti of Jerusalem and the chief Muslim administrator of the site, has said, “The Al-Buraq [Wailing Wall] is part of the Al-Aksa Mosque. The Jews have no relation to it.”
Catholic leaders reject such statements.
“That is their opinion, not ours,” said Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's nuncio to Jerusalem, during a late-November tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
“The Temple Mount is a holy place for Jews, Muslims and Christians, all three,” added Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, during the Yad Vashem visit. “There must be free access to all believers.”
Evangelical Christians have been particularly upset by what they consider to be a double standard.
“We consider what the Wakf is doing a historical crime,” said Dave Parsons, the media officer of the International Christian Embassy. “The world was in an uproar when the Taliban destroyed statues in Afghanistan, but this has been going on for years in Jerusalem and the world is silent. The Wakf fears our history and is trying to destroy it.”
Clarence Wagner Jr., the director of the Jerusalem-based Christian organization Bridges for Peace, has condemned the Wakf's activities on several occasions.
“For the Muslims to declare that the Temple Mount has never had a Jewish history not only undermines Jewish history at the site but also Christian history,” Wagner wrote in a recent commentary on his organization's Web site. “If there was no Temple on the site, as the Muslims declare, then the events of the life of Jesus and the early Church that occurred on the Mount could not have taken place either.”
It is time, Wagner said, “for Christians, Jews and all people of good will to raise their voice in protest in an effort to stop the continued Muslim destruction of the Temple Mount, which affirms biblical history on the site.”
Israeli government spokesman Ra‘anan Gissin said that Israel had just established a committee to examine the problem, including the Antiquities Authority's inability to enter the Temple Mount.
“We know what's going on but you have to understand that this is a very sensitive issue at a sensitive time,” Gissin said. “We have to tread very carefully.”
Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.
Attacks in Israel Sadden Pope
VATICAN CITY — John Paul II expressed grief and concern Dec. 2 over the suicide attacks that killed at least 25 and wounded more than 200 in Israel during the weekend.
The Holy Father also reminded the thousands of pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Square that today is the first day of Advent, the liturgical season of preparation for Christmas.
“Advent is synonymous with hope,” hope in God, who is incarnated at Christmas, the Pope said. He cited the day's liturgy which quoted the prophet Isaiah: “One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.”
“These words contain a promise of peace more urgent than ever for humanity and, in particular, for the Holy Land, from where even today, unfortunately, sad and worrying news reaches us,” the Holy Father lamented.
In the latest of the three weekend attacks, a powerful bomb ripped through a bus in Haifa today, killing at least 16 people and injuring about 35 others, CNN reported.
The attacks are the most tragic bloodbath since the Palestinian uprising began 14 months ago. The uprising has left 1,039 dead.
In the face of this situation, the Pontiff proposed again, to “believers and […] men of good will,” to join the day of fasting and prayer for peace, which he called for Dec. 14, as well as the meeting of representatives of the world's religions, which will be held in Assisi on Jan. 24.
The spirit of these initiatives is to help create “a more relaxed and mutually supportive climate in the world,” the Pope concluded.